The AFC East as a division has its own history and its own feel that sets it apart from the other seven NFL divisions. Over the past several years, there has been a clear and palpable hierarchy. The New England Patriots have been the top dogs. Even in 2010 and 2011, when they fell short in the playoffs, there was no real sense that their reign had ended.
The New York Jets have been the beta dog, the top challenger, with the Jets vs. Patriots rivalry being one of the most heated rivalries in all of sports. The Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills have been quietly on the bottom, looking up.
Given recent history and all offseason activity, I answer the following question: Where do the New York Jets stand going forward in the division?
To answer objectively, I first present the three possible answers.
Option 1: The Jets will finally surpass the Patriots
Arguments in favor of the Jets immediately surpassing the Patriots would stem from two main sources. The first would be faith in head coach Rex Ryan and his defense. More than any other NFL defense, the Jets defense has posed problems for star quarterback Tom Brady. The most profound instance of this occurred in the 2011 playoffs, when the Jets (featuring dominant performances by Darrelle Revis and Calvin Pace) locked down the Patriots and defeated them in Foxborough stadium.
How long will the Patriots reign over the AFC East?
“I'll never get over that loss... [The Jets] can rush the passer, find ways to confuse you by rushing the passer or by their coverages."
Anyone sticking by this prediction will have to bank on the Jets keeping star cornerback Darrelle Revis and continuing to build around him. Trade rumors abound, but there is no certainty yet in Revis' future. To quote Peter King of SI.com:
I think I still wouldn't trade Darrelle Revis if I were the Jets. And I think New York [general manager] John Idzik will try to find a way to not trade Revis.
Looking at the Patriots offseason, one would have to rest their hopes on the loss of wide receiver Wes Welker causing problems. The longtime Patriot and arguably the most prolific wide receiver in recent NFL history left for the Denver Broncos in free agency. The Patriots also face secondary issues and failed to sign free agent safety Ed Reed.
Despite all of this, the counterargument against this viewpoint is strong. The Patriots won the AFC East in nine of the past 10 seasons, with the lone exception occurring when Tom Brady was injured in 2008. Their offense remains deadly with both Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski at tight end. They also made an interesting addition with the signing of free-agent slot receiver Danny Amendola.
For the past two seasons, the Patriots have been the lone representative in the playoffs of the AFC East. As long as Brady is healthy and has weapons, they will at least have a chance and a strong bid within the division.
Option 2: Second place (same old Jets)
The Jets are no strangers to second place. They have been one of the most consistently second-place teams in the NFL, often fielding a quality team but rarely a top contender. They finished in second place in the AFC East three out of the past four seasons and were one game from second place in that fourth season.
The last four times the Jets reached the playoffs, it was as a wild card rather than as a division winner.
The Jets have made several small moves this offseason, but none of them have changed the team dramatically. The additions of running back Mike Goodson, nose tackle Antonio Garay and offensive guard Willie Colon should all be minor upgrades but not game-changing ones. The Jets have also released (or allowed to leave in free agency) several of their under-performing veterans, including Shonn Greene, Bryan Thomas, Calvin Pace, Sione Pouha and Mike DeVito.
The addition of former Pro-Bowl quarterback David Garrard could be interesting. If healthy, he is an upgrade over Mark Sanchez but most likely not a tremendous one.
All in all, the Jets should be more or the less the same team as last year. The one real franchise-altering move would be trading away Revis, but that decision remains up in the air. The main argument for the Jets sticking around in second place would be that they lack the talent to move into first but have too strong of a defense to fall lower than second.
That brings us to the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins, the other two contenders in the AFC East. If either of those teams could break out of their decade-long slumps, then the AFC East might finally look a little different.
Starting with the Bills, there is not much cause for optimism in Buffalo. They have not made any real upgrades yet this offseason, though they have re-signed quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and cornerback Leodis McKelvin.
Will the Bills contend in the AFC East in 2013?
Meanwhile, the Bills have lost several key pieces. Wide receivers Donald Jones and David Nelson will not be retained. Offensive guards Andy Levitre and Chad Rinehart were lost to the Tennessee Titans (who also picked up safety George Wilson from the Bills) and San Diego Chargers respectively. Additionally, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was let go.
The Bills have not reached the playoffs yet this millennium (they were last a wild-card team in 1999), and that streak might continue for a while longer. They are in a complete rebuilding mode, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
The Dolphins front office has been looking to spend significant cap space but have not found many takers yet. They have added a few potential upgrades but were required to overpay. Wide receiver Mike Wallace was the biggest signing, though it took a dangerously large guaranteed contract. Miami also signed linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and tight end Dustin Keller to surprisingly expensive contracts.
Clearly the Dolphins are not afraid to spend money this year. The primary question is whether or not these expenditures have improved the team. After a disappointing rookie season from No. 8 overall pick Ryan Tannehill, Miami fans should be hoping for some improvement to get them up to and over the 8-8 hump that has eluded them in recent history.
In the end, the simplest argument for the Jets sticking around as No. 2 in the AFC East is that the Bills and Dolphins continue to look like they are far away from contention.
Option 3: The Jets will fall out of contention (finish third or fourth)
The final option for the Jets in 2013 is that they will get worse and fall out of contention. The main arguments in favor of this stance would be grounded in a lack of faith in the offense. The Jets had one of the worst offenses in the NFL in 2012. If Mark Sanchez (or his replacement) at quarterback does not achieve increased productivity, that could pose a problem. Additionally, if one does not have faith in wide receivers Santonio Holmes and Stephen Hill to return from injury, then the passing game does not look solid on the whole.
If one predicts a last-place offense and a general lack of improvement at the skill positions, then one could go with this option for the Jets. The health of new quarterback David Garrard is also a major concern, as he faced season-ending injuries in each of the past two seasons. His last NFL start was in 2010, a year in which he started 14 games.
Will replacing Bill Hughan keep the Jets healthy in 2013?
The main arguments against this pessimistic option would be twofold. The first is the injury perspective. The Jets faced a historically bad rash of injuries during 2012. As a general rule, teams who face a large number of injuries improve the following year. A recent example of this is the Indianapolis Colts, who went from 2-14 to a playoff berth in one year. A slightly older example are the 2008 Patriots, who missed the playoffs but then got healthy and won the next four division titles.
In 2012, the Jets lost Revis (their best player) and Holmes (their best offensive skill player) to injuries. To follow on that, they lost a host of other starters and part-time starters to injuries: Sione Pouha, Kenrick Ellis, Joe McKnight, Stephen Hill, Dustin Keller, Bart Scott and Bryan Thomas.
One result was the firing of strength and conditioning coach Bill Hughan.
Given everything we know about the New York Jets and the AFC East, a rational observer has to go with Option 2—second place. The Jets roster is clearly the second best in the AFC East, far below the Patriots but far above the Dolphins and Bills. Recent history agrees as well, with the Jets being as consistent of a second place team as there is in the NFL (the Ravens used to be in that category until they finally broke through in 2011).
Nevertheless, one should be careful with predictions for underdog teams like the Bills and the Dolphins, and even the Jets. Fans and analysts alike often expect the bottom half of teams to remain in the bottom half.
Yet in the NFL, almost the opposite is true, with teams rarely staying at the bottom and parity running the show. As a recent overview from BeyondTheBets.com reminds us:
It makes sense [for 'bad' teams to succeed]. The NFL is a league of parity, where teams’ fortunes change rapidly from year to year. Just because a team was bad last year doesn’t mean they’ll be the same going forward. Plus, being awful one season softens the ensuing schedule, making it that much easier for a quick turnaround.
Without a doubt, at least one or two "bad" teams will make the NFL playoffs in 2013. Perhaps the Jets will be one of them. Maybe even the Bills or Dolphins will turn some heads.
However, the best prediction right now is that the Jets will stick around in their usual spot: No. 2 in the AFC East.